The NBA Coach's Guide to Getting Fired

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The NBA Coach's Guide to Getting Fired
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Frank Vogel and Terry Stotts can rest easy.

For a moment, anyway.

On Monday, the NBA announced that the head coaches of the Indiana Pacers and the Portland Trail Blazers had been named the Coaches of the Month for November in the Eastern and Western Conferences, respectively.

Truth be told, neither Vogel nor Stotts was in much danger of losing his job prior to this proclamation from the league office.

These days, though, you never know when a coach's head might hit the chopping block. The coaching carousel was unusually active this past offseason, with a whopping 13 teams (i.e. nearly half the entire league!) choosing to make a change on the bench.

That's not even including the Los Angeles Lakers, who replaced Mike Brown with Mike D'Antoni early on in 2012-13.

More shocking still: seven of those 13 were on teams that qualified for the playoffs. Three of those seven, including the reigning Coach of the Year, were dismissed after leading their respective franchises to landmark campaigns.

It was an unprecedented season for turnover in the coaching ranks, to say the least.

One with which Vogel was none too pleased. "I don’t think anybody really likes it, especially people in the coaching profession," Vogel recently told Bleacher Report. "But I think, big picture-wise, forget the fact that I’m a coach. I don’t think it’s good for the game."

It may not be good for the game, but such turmoil would appear to be part and parcel of coaching in today's NBA. If we parse through the particulars of the most recent round of firings and hirings, we can better understand the range of reasons behind the sacking of coaches nowadays and who among those currently employed could soon find themselves jammed into each category.

 

The Wrong Hire

Examples From Last Offseason: Byron Scott, Lawrence Frank, Mike Dunlap

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In some cases, it doesn't take long for teams to figure out that they've simply hired the wrong guy to do the job. The luster of that opening press conference fades quickly, and the coach struggles to squeeze even base-level competence out of his players, be it during practice or in the midst of meaningful games.

Whether that's the coach's fault or not is a matter of the particulars of the roster handed to each one.

The Cleveland Cavaliers must've known that things might not be pretty when they brought Byron Scott onboard in the summer of 2010. He was tasked with leading the team in the aftermath of LeBron James' "Decision" to join the Miami Heat, though the Cavs had hoped that Scott's arrival might persuade James to stay. To the surprise of absolutely nobody, the Cavs won just 19 games in Scott's first season on the job while losing an NBA-record 26 games in a row.

A bump up to 21 wins during Kyrie Irving's lockout-shortened rookie season suggested that the Cavs were headed in the right direction. But the team's winning percentage slid back under .300 in 2012-13, due in large part to a stagnant defensive effort.

Compared to Lawrence Frank and Mike Dunlap, though, Scott was in Rock City for an eternity. He coached as many seasons in Cleveland (three) as did Frank (two) and Dunlap (one) in combination with their respective franchises. The Detroit Pistons dug deep holes for themselves at the outset of each of their campaigns under Frank, while Dunlap's lack of experience at the NBA level was all too evident during his lone season with the Charlotte Bobcats.

 

Who Could Be Next: Randy Wittman

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The Washington Wizards have picked up the pace of late, winning seven of their last nine games to move comfortably into the calamitous playoff picture in the East.

Still, it's a wonder that Randy Wittman's survived this long as the head coach in DC. He took over for Flip Saunders on an interim basis in 2012, and was handed the job full-time shortly thereafter, despite watching the Wizards slip to 18-31 on his watch. A 29-53 finish last season apparently wasn't enough to cost Wittman his job, either.

That being said, another subpar season isn't likely to satisfy owner Ted Leonsis and GM Ernie Grunfeld this time around. Those two have moved aggressively to secure the franchise's first playoff berth since 2008—namely, by acquiring Marcin Gortat from the Phoenix Suns in exchange for the injured Emeka Okafor and a first-round pick prior at the outset of the current campaign.

If the Wiz don't finish in the top eight in the embarrassingly weak East, you can bet Wittman will be among the first in his profession to wind up back in the bread line.

 

Wiping the Slate Clean

Examples From Last Offseason: Doug Collins, Alvin Gentry, Keith Smart

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A bad season in DC could precipitate a wave of change that extends well beyond the coaching bench.

With any such shift, be it on account of brand-new ownership or a philosophical pivot pushed by the existing regime, often comes a desire to install a new coach. GMs and other front-office folks are wont to part ways with old coaches in order to make room for their own hires, even more so when the current guy in charge is struggling to get the Ws he needs to justify his continued employment.

That was largely the case with Doug Collins, who resigned his post with the Philadelphia 76ers following a 34-48 campaign in 2012-13. Technically, the Sixers didn't fire their head coach—according to the Associated Press, the team kept Collins on as a consultant after he stepped down—though Collins must've known that, with Tony DiLeo giving way to Sam Hinkie in the front office, he'd be short his most fervent advocate within the organization.

Not to mention that Hinkie's arrival signaled the start of a rebuilding project, of which the 62-year-old Collins likely wanted only little part.

Alvin Gentry was ousted prior to the Phoenix Suns' front office reorganization, with Boston Celtics brainiac Ryan McDonough heading West to be the new GM. That being said, it was already clear that the Suns were careening toward a full-scale rebuild, as indicated by their 13-28 record through the first half of last season under Gentry.

Keith Smart was at least fortunate enough to avoid the ax midseason, though he probably saw the writing on the wall once Vivek Ranadive seized control of the Sacramento Kings from the Maloof brothers. Smart's 48-93 record in nearly two seasons of work didn't do him any favors, either.

 

Who Could Be Next: Tyrone Corbin

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Tyrone Corbin's tenure with the Utah Jazz predates that of current GM Dennis Lindsey—a point that, in and of itself, might be enough to cost the former NBA journeyman his job at some point in the near future.

The Jazz, though, don't seem too eager to dump Corbin for another coach just yet. Their Western Conference-worst 4-15 record is right in line with what would be needed to land a prime pick in the 2014 NBA Draft—perhaps even one good enough to land Duke standout and LDS member Jabari Parker. 

Corbin would appear to be the "lame duck" coach of choice to steward Utah through their expectedly abysmal campaign. It would come as little surprise if Utah handed Corbin his walking papers after the 2013-14 season, assuming Lindsey's able to find another young coach who better fits the franchise's vision for the future.

 

Losing the Locker Room

Examples From Last Offseason: Avery Johnson, Scott Skiles, Vinny Del Negro

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One of the surest ways for a team's season to head south is for the coach to lose the trust and respect of his players. After all, if the guys doing the dirty work aren't on board, how, exactly, is the coach supposed to lead them to victory with any frequency?

Avery Johnson discovered this first-hand with the Brooklyn Nets last season. Johnson clashed with Deron Williams, who the team had inked to a five-year deal worth nearly $99 million the summer prior, over the former's insistence on running an isolation-heavy offense.

The Nets' 14-14 start, when combined with two terrible seasons in New Jersey under Johnson, was justification enough for GM Billy King to fire "The Little General." Brooklyn replaced him with journeyman coach PJ Carlesimo, who was let go after the team's first-round loss to the Derrick Rose-less Chicago Bulls in the 2013 playoffs.

The Milwaukee Bucks saw their coaching situation play out in nearly identical fashion last year. The team started 16-16 under Scott Skiles, a defensive-minded taskmaster who, according to Dinesh Ramde of the Associated Press, didn't always mesh philosophically with the shoot-first duo of Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis.

Vinny Del Negro had no such trouble hanging onto his job during the season, though that probably had plenty to do with the Los Angeles Clippers' perfect month in December of 2012. Once LA had been ejected from the first-round of the playoffs by the Memphis Grizzlies, the Clips had all the cause they needed to not renew Del Negro's contract, despite his role in leading the team to a franchise-record 56 wins and its first Pacific Division title.

Though, to hear team owner Donald Sterling tell it (via TJ Simers, then with the Los Angeles Times), the timing of VDN's ouster likely had everything to do with the disconnect between coach and players— particularly Chris Paul, who was due to test free agency come July 1st.

 

Who Could Be Next: Mike Woodson

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The New York Knicks have their own superstar (Carmelo Anthony) to satisfy ahead of his next dip into free agency. The team's 3-13 start, made worse by a nine-game skid, has started to wear on Anthony, who had this to say to Ian Begley of ESPN New York after the Knicks' latest loss to the New Orleans Pelicans:

"I think we're playing to lose rather than playing to win right now. When you lose games the way we've been losing them at home, on the road, you start thinking a lot. You start playing a little tense. You start playing on your heels."

That's the last thing the Knicks want to be doing, be it on the court or in negotiations with the face of their franchise. If the team deems Mike Woodson an impediment to either of those efforts, they'll probably move to replace him.

For now, though, Woodson appears to be safe. According to Frank Isola of the New York Daily News, Woodson still has the ears of (most of) his players and is doing everything he can to keep them unified.

That being said, if the losses keep piling up in New York, Woodson will have a tough time holding the attention of his players. And even if he does keep the players on his side, a lengthier losing streak may leave the Knicks with no choice but to send Woodson packing, if only for PR purposes.

 

Politics

Examples From Last Offseason: George Karl, Lionel Hollins, Larry Drew

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As discussed earlier, changes in ownership and/or management tend to reverberate down to the bench in the NBA. That's especially true when the incumbent coach hasn't yielded satisfactory results from his squad.

Success, though, has proven to be anything but a guarantor of job security in today's NBA if the coach in question doesn't fall in line with the rest of the team's chain of command.

George Karl, who was named the league's Coach of the Year after leading the Denver Nuggets to an NBA franchise-record 57, may have cost himself his own job by pushing management for greater certainty and security, per Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports. The team's decision to fire the man who'd earned guiding the franchise to its ninth straight playoff appearance was met with quite a bit of curiosity at first blush.

But the fact that the Nuggets had escaped the first round of the postseason just once during Karl's tenure didn't help the veteran coach's case any. Neither did Masai Ujiri's journey to Toronto, which all but beckoned Denver to "correct" course.

The Memphis Grizzlies' on-court results under Lionel Hollins suggested that they didn't require such a correction. With Hollins' help, the Grizzlies had won a franchise-record 56 games and advanced to their first-ever Western Conference Finals, thanks in no small part to the "grit-n-grind" identity that their coach had helped to forge.

Unfortunately for Hollins, he didn't get along so well with the Grizzlies' new, analytics-driven brain trust of owner Robert Pera, team executive Jason Levien and former ESPN stats guru John Hollinger.

They wanted Hollins to speed up the pace of play and give more minutes to Ed Davis. He wanted to slow things down and would've preferred that the team had hung onto Rudy Gay, famously telling John Rohde of The Oklahoman:

“When you have champagne taste, you can't be on a beer budget. It's a small market and I understand the economics of being in a small market. I've been with the Grizzlies for 11 years in Memphis. Rudy Gay has been a big part of our success. I've known him as a kid as a rookie coming in. He's a big part of my success as a coach here and I feel I was a big part of his success and I wish him the best as he moves forward into the second chapter of his career.”

Whatever it is the Grizz were drinking, the after effects didn't work in Hollins' favor.

The same could be said of Larry Drew, who the Atlanta Hawks held onto after last season until they found themselves a suitable successor in former San Antonio Spurs assistant Mike Budenholzer. Drew's tenure in Atlanta had predated that of GM Danny Ferry, who signaled his intention to retool the roster when he dealt Joe Johnson to the Nets during the summer of 2012.

The Hawks made the playoffs during each of Drew's three seasons at the helm, just as they had under Mike Woodson the three years prior. Ferry, though, was evidently unimpressed with the team churning out the same so-so results that they had under Woodson (i.e. never advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals), without making any tangible progress toward winning a championship. Hence, Ferry tried to have his cake and eat it too when he began his search for a new head coach without officially splitting with Drew, just in case said search didn't turn up any worthy and/or interested candidates.

 

Who Could Be Next: Dwane Casey

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The Toronto Raptors spent lavishly to lure Masai Ujiri away from the Denver Nuggets this past summer. It's only reasonable, then, that they'd give him the leeway to bring in his own guy to oversee the day-to-day operations on the court and in the locker room.

Ujiri, though, neglected to cut ties with Dwane Casey upon arrival, in spite of the incumbent coach's 57-91 record through Seasons 1 and 2 in Toronto.

The putridity of the Atlantic Division has allowed the Raptors to hold fast to their dreams of nailing down their first playoff appearance of the post-Chris Bosh era. But if the situation sours in T-Dot and Ujiri decides to dismantle the roster piecemeal, Casey's place at the Air Canada Centre will be in serious jeopardy.

 

Moving On

Example From Last Offseason: Doc Rivers

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Team and coach are sometimes smart enough to recognize when it's time to go in different directions, and are able to do so (more or less) amicably.

For example, take what happened between the Boston Celtics and Doc Rivers this past summer. Both sides were well aware that a roster built around two geriatric superstars (Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce) and a third key cog (Rajon Rondo) recovering from a torn ACL wasn't exactly one fit to compete for championships anymore. The calls from all corners to "blow it up" grew louder and louder, until GM Danny Ainge, faced with some sweetheart deals, caved.

Depending on your sources, Doc either wanted out early on or warmed up to the idea once he and Ainge came to a mutual understanding that him moving on might be what's best for both parties.

The outcome was the same either way: Rivers wound up effectively traded to the Los Angeles Clippers for a future first-round pick, largely at the behest of Chris Paul, LA's then-free-agent-to-be. The two sides also attempted to engineer a swap of some sort that would've brought KG (and, perhaps, Pierce) to the West Coast while landing DeAndre Jordan in Celtics green.

However, the appearance of trading a coach for players—a no-no in the collective bargaining agreement—led the league to put the kibosh on that and all other potential trades between the Clips and the C's for a full season.

 

Who Could Be Next: Tom Thibodeau

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The ongoing tiff between Tom Thibodeau and the Chicago Bulls' front office has been well documented, particularly by Adrian Wojnarowski, Yahoo! Sports' NBA guru. When last we heard from Woj on the Bulls, Thibs' players were lining up behind him in the seemingly never-ending power struggle with GM Gar Forman (and, by extension, long-time owner Jerry Reinsdorf).

The ripple effects of Derrick Rose's latest season-ending injury only figure to strain relations between Thibodeau and his superiors even further. Thibs is a big backer of Luol Deng, with whom the front office may be more inclined to part ways in order to bring back some other pieces and clear a path for Jimmy Butler.

To be clear, Thibs isn't likely to get the ax soon. He's in the second year of a four-year contract, one that he took his sweet time signing after it was put in front of him last fall. 

If anything, it's Thibs who might do the walking here. He was none too pleased to see Ron Adams, his trusted assistant, let go by the Bulls this past summer, reportedly on account of Adams' similar defiance of Chicago's higher-ups. Moreover, Rose's absence only further defers Thibodeau's chances of capturing a championship for himself (he was on Doc Rivers' staff with the C's in 2008).

Any significant roster shakeups on Forman's part of which Thibs disapproves could be enough to convince the hoarse-voiced coach to take his talents elsewhere, assuming that another, more suitable position opens up outside of the Windy City. 

 

Which coach will be the next to get canned? Let me know on Twitter!

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